- TRAI has already delayed telecom subscribers' data for January by a week
- COAI expects March subscriber growth to be less than 1 million against 3 million previously
- Analysts see a drop in subscriber numbers for April and May
- Telecom data of over a billion subscribers is critical for government and policymakers
- Telecom operators have been given permission to submit March subscribers' data after a delay of six weeks
- Telcos submit a variety of data to TRAI on weekly, monthly and quarterly basis
Last week, reports said Chinese mobile operators lost about 21 million subscribers in just two months - January and February. For a 1.6-billion subs-market, the drop was not huge but it was a rare event for an otherwise-thriving telecom market in China, which is controlled by just three operators - China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom.
It also highlighted the damage the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has done to the Chinese telecom sector. Analysts say the drop was largely driven by the migrant workers who went for SIM consolidation - industry jargon for multi-SIM card customers moving towards single or two-SIM ownership.
Back home, the situation is likely to be similar, but it will take a while before people actually know the amount of drop, especially in March and April when the entire country had to undergo a 21-day lockdown.
Why? The telecom watchdog TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), which releases the monthly subscriber data, has delayed the issuance of fresh data for January by (at least) more than a week. While the TRAI doesn't have a fixed release date, the fresh data usually is out by now. What could have led to the delay?
"It could be due to the shortage of manpower. The data is collated and then analysed, which requires a large number of people. If some people are not available due to lockdown, the whole chain gets broken," says a sector analyst. The counter-argument to this is that telecom has been declared an essential service, and as a sector regulator, TRAI has to function under the current circumstances. "It's likely that the regulator's priorities have changed. Unless the regulator would have planned for such eventualities, some of the critical areas do get affected," says a senior executive of a large equipment maker.
Interestingly, the Cellular Operators Association of India says the telcos submit monthly subscriber figures to TRAI by the 7th of the subsequent month. It essentially means that the January data would have reached TRAI on February 7, and yet it couldn't publish the January data before the lockdown (March 25), which, by TRAI's past records, is late.
In fact, even after the lockdown, TRAI did respond to the telecom operators' demand for an extension of date for submitting subscribers' data for March. "Considering the present circumstances and your request, the authority has decided to grant a relaxation of six weeks from the respective due dates in respect of all monthly and quarterly reports in the larger public interest for the period ending March 31, 2020. This may be brought to the notice of all telecom service providers," TRAI Secretary SK Gupta had written in a letter to industry body COAI on March 29.
The subscriber data is crucial due to a variety of reasons, and more so in times like these when telecom data can give insights into the movements and behaviours of over a billion subscribers, which can be used by the different arms of the government and policymakers. "It would be interesting to know if the government is analysing telecom data, which is available real-time to mitigate the troubles created by the pandemic. For instance, the large-scale migration of workers can be tracked through telecom networks," says the analyst quoted above.
If the regulator has not published the data for January yet - the month when the impact of coronavirus was relatively far lower - it's quite likely the data for subsequent months would be pushed much further. Meanwhile, the COAI is expecting subs addition to slow down to less than 1 million in March against (average) 3 million in the past. Analysts say subscriber growth is going to be negative in April and May due to big disruption in the manner telecom services are used.
A source in Vodafone Idea says that reporting of data to TRAI has been delayed because many people are not available. Though the data is captured on an ongoing basis, it requires manual intervention before the submission. Telcos have to report a variety of data to TRAI -mobile and internet subscriber numbers, MNP (mobile number portability), QoS (quality of service), tariffs, data services, VLR (visitor location register), and others - on weekly, monthly and quarterly basis in specified formats.
"It is extremely difficult for the TSPs (telecom service providers) to submit various monthly and quarterly reports on the due date or on a real-time basis, as per the requirements of TRAI as most of these reports require circle-wise compilation and their compilation in the current environment will not be possible," Rajan Mathews, Director General of COAI says in an email response.
The delay on part of telcos will happen due to issues at retailers' end in reporting numbers to operators as the lockdown was implemented at a short notice. Business Today has sent email queries to TRAI, Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, and the story will be updated in due course.